Australia Trifecta Part III - You May Remove My Fins Now  -- Great Barrier Reef & The Coral Sea On The Spoilsport

(click on thumbnails for larger pics)

In order to get to the Spoilsport, we had to drive down to Townsville.  Although it's billed as the Great Green Way, or some such name, there's not much to see between Cairns and Townsville.  We did stop at the Wild World Zoo, however, for two purposes and two purposes only:  to cuddle a Koala and to feed kangaroos.

     

Mission accomplished, we continued down towards Townsville, arriving at about 6 pm.  Being winter, it was dark, and the meeting place for Mike Ball's Spoilsport at the Quarterdeck at the Marina is not easy to find.  After getting directions, I dropped Wendy off at the restaurant and headed to the airport, about 20 minutes away, to drop off the rental.  By the time I returned, the necessary dive boat paperwork was awaiting me.

The boat was less than half full.  There were 13 passengers to 12 crew.  Aside from Wendy and me, the boat held Wayne from South Africa by way of Perth, Peter from Britain by way of Japan, Tess & Yvana from Brisbane, BJ and Jen from Florida, a couple from the Channel Islands and three Koreans.  Peter had an RSD connection, having won the trip in RSD's 9/11 auction.  When Wendy sat out a dive, Peter was my usual dive buddy.

The Spoilsport is an aluminum-hulled (or, in Australian and British spelling and pronunciation, "aluminium") boat approximately 100 feet long, has a 35 feet beam, and three decks.  Although it appears white in its advertising, it is actually silver.  The bottom deck contains a large dive deck on the stern, and cabins moving towards the bow.  Wendy and I had the first portside cabin from the stern, with an ensuite.  It was nice being close to the deck, but since there were so few people, it really made no difference.  The cabin had plenty of room, and the double bed and single bed were convenient  for storing and placing (strewing?) gear all over the cabin.  The dive deck is made up of two rows of tank racks with a shelf in between each rack.  Each row runs lengthwise of the boat. Between the rows is a large tri-level camera table, although there were very few cameras on this trip.  There are two fresh water camera rinse tanks near each stairway to the dive deck.  Wetsuits are hung on hangers on each side of the dive deck.  The dive deck is covered with a very uncomfortable plastic material.  Reportedly, this is an improvement over the mold and mildew accompanying the previously carpeted deck, but keep your sandals handy, or the bottom of your feet will be sore by the end of the week.

The second deck contains the galley, bridge, couch and television area, and common eating area.  A nice touch is that the crew mingles with passengers during meals, so you get to know them much better than on some other boats.  The meals are plentiful and very good.  There are always cookies or crackers available, and all sodas are included.  Other than a bottle of wine at dinner, all alcohol is extra.  There is an open "smoking area" astern of the galley.  The top deck is the sun deck, but at this time of year it got little use until the end of the trip when we wanted to dry our gear.

As on most boats, following a dive briefing the dive deck is open from around 8 am until noon, about 1:30 or two until eight or so, allowing for two morning dives, one or two afternoon dives, and a night dive.  Except for the first day, the morning dive preceded breakfast.  Depths were clearly marked.  There was usually a stern line attached to the mooring for easy access and navigation to the dive site.  The briefings were very good and very complete, and always given by Nick, the trip coordinator.  The sites were accurately (and artfully) drawn on a white wipe-off board, and if there were certain critters that the crew wanted to highlight, they put a DM in the water to locate and point them out.  These were not guided dives, however, nor did they need to be.  Although there were a couple of deep, and thus advanced, dives, the dives were for the most part appropriate for almost any level of diver. 

Air fills were extremely fast, and the attention of the crew was superb.  Almost too much.  While gearing up, and immediately upon getting back on board, drinking water was heavily emphasized.  Sometimes they didn't let you get situated before putting a glass of water in your hands.  Easy there, lads.....  Although, the hot chocolate and warm towel wrapped around your head after a night dive were heavenly.

The other indulgence is the taking off of the fins.  When the boat is full, there is a full service ladder, and a do it yourself ladder.  On the full service ladder, they'll take your gear, take off your fins, and otherwise treat you like royalty.  I guess since the boat was only half full.  It was all royal treatment.  While I felt like a bid of an invalid when they were taking off my fins (doing it myself in California boats all the time), and felt over-indulgent, you do get a bit used to it.  So much so that, by the end of the week, you begin to get a little annoyed when no one is there to take off your fins.  And, when they appear, you feel like saying "You may remove my fins now, thank you very much."

32% Nitrox was available on board.  I did the last several dives on Nitrox, but otherwise for the most part all dives were on air.

I have listed the 22 dive profiles below, but won't bore with a dive-by-dive description.  Rather, I'll hit the highlights.

Our first dives were on the SS Yongala, reputed to be one of the greatest wreck dives in the world.  Most likely because there are no reefs for some 40 miles around, the Yongala is an oasis in a desert.  When we awoke the first morning after boarding, we were anchored over the Yongala.  Humpback whales were breaching in the distance.  I was ready to dive.  Dropping down on the Yongala is one of the most amazing sights underwater.  The sheer multitudes of fish leaves one breathless, and hard to concentrate on taking pictures.  I tried to get pictures of everything, so consequently got pictures of nothing on that first dive.  As with anything so massive, pictures wouldn't convey the feeling anyway.

The Yongala is in open water, and is thus subject to currents and weather, and not always diveable.   The good weather brought us to the Yongala immediately so as to take advantage of the lull.  Since we went to the Yongala on the first day, we got four dives on her, including a night dive.  I saw my first sea snake on this wreck.  Having just watched a video of divers handling sea snakes, which are very venomous, didn't allay any fear I might have had.  But diving with them you realize, like most every other marine animal, they really care a lot about eating, and very little about you or your presence.  There was also a bull shark, as evidenced by the trip video, but I missed it entirely.  The highlight of the Yongala was the huge bull ray and school of cobia hanging out on the wreck.  During the night dive, each bull ray was so big that they had several other "medium" size rays "riding" on its back.....The soft corals on the wreck are also fantastic.

(NB: all of the pictures are also available in the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea Galleries)

     
Turtle cruising the Yongala            Yongala colors                              Female Napoleon Wrasse             Olive sea snake

         
6 banded angel & soft coral     Marble or Bull ray on the Yongala 

After four dives on the Yongala, we motored overnight to South Flinders Reef, where we dove Berlin Wall and Midnight.  Upon arriving at Midnight, almost immediately a mother and calf Dwarf Minke Whales appeared.  This was one of the greatest diving moments of my life.

     

At Anemone City, I encountered my first cuttlefish underwater.  Also got attacked by an octopus that was either not pleased with the fact that I fired a strobe in its face, or it fell in lust with my strobe arms......

         
The killer octo                               Cuttlefish                                      Cuttlefish                                           Pink Anemone fish

 
Clark's anemone fish                     On the wall

Friday was BBQ and party night.  We were taken by the skiffs over to Flinders Caye, a bird and turtle nesting sand caye, for a champagne sunset and a bit of walking on terra firma.  The turtles weren't there, out of season.  But the boobies were there and, apparently from lack of contact, were not too wary of our presence.  This allowed me to get some nice close ups of moms and babes.  As well as other types of birds as well.  In fact, while walking along one section, I noticed that the little "lumps" that I was seeing were in fact chicks of some type.  All over the place.  I assumed the moms knew which ones were theirs........

 

We also hit Scuba Zoo.  Mike Ball has cages installed in 30 fsw, and the DM drags a bucket of fish around to get the sharks worked up.  Once the sharks are sufficiently slathered, all the divers get into the cages and the lid is released.  Three minutes later, it's all over.

     

After Scuba Zoo, we went a few hundred yards to Geronimo for a night dive.  I saw flashlight fish for the first time on this dive, as well as a wild looking tiger tail.  We were dropped off in the zodiac a few hundred yards from the boat, to drift along the wall.  We were also told that the silver tip sharks would follow us from Scuba Zoo, so that when we reached the hang bar, we should extinguish our lights.  Sure enough, at the hang bar, out of the murk cam several grey shapes, cruising the area.  Shark feeding?  Yeah, it's a problem when they want food and you don't have any...... At one point, with just me and the M on the safety stop, a couple of the silvertips had a little run in, concluding with one of them shooting towards me, fins down.  Needless to say, dive was over (although a look at the DM only got a hearty "shaka sign" in response, rather than the "ascend now" signal I was looking for......)

The last two dives were done at Wheeler Reef on the GBR.  These were very colorful dives, with nice healthy coral heads and lots of fish.  Pics are here.

After getting off the boat, we had one day to kill prior to catching our flights home.  We decided to take the ferry over to Magnetic Island, so named by Captain Cook because he claimed to have experienced some compass interference near there.  Magnetic Island has a few residential areas, with one road leading around half of the island.  The most enjoyable way to get around is via a moke, an open aired jeep-type vehicle.  I had driven a car in Australia, so I was comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road.   But walking up to the moke, my thought was "uh oh."  Stick shift.  Forget that I hadn't driven a stick in ten years......  now I had to do it on the other side, with the other hand.  Thankfully, the pedals are the same as the U.S., so I let muscle memory kick in and was fine after a few, uh, grinds.

Magnetic Island is famous for its wild koalas in the trees, and we were not disappointed, seeing two of them.  We also took a walk up to the WWII-era fortress, where remnants of bunkers, and gunneries, and latrines, remain.  "Look, this is where the Allies shat."  Anyway.......

 

 

 

Dive Profiles

Day 1
1.    SS Yongala
86 fsw
39:00
air

2.    SS Yongala
86 fsw
41:00
air

3.    SS Yongala
70 fsw
33:00
air

4.    SS Yongala
58 fsw
40:00
air

Day 2
5.    Berlin Wall, South Flinders Reef
102 fsw
25:00
air

6.    Berlin Wall
58 fsw
49:00
air

7.    Midnight, Flinders Reef
82 fsw
46:00
air

8.    Midnight
51 fsw
32:00
air

9.    Midnight
50 fsw
42:00
air

Day 3
10.    Anemone City
91 fsw
40:00

11.    Anemone City
71 fsw
56:00
air

12.    Anemone City
65 fsw
45:00
air

13.    Lonely Eel
85 fsw
44:00
air

14.    Lonely Eel
62 fsw
48:00
air

Day 4
15.    The Castle
108 fsw
50:00
air

16.    Trigger Happy
79 fsw
47:00
air

17.    Trigger Happy
84 fsw
51:00
air

Day 5
18.    Cod Wall
139 fsw
44:00
air

19.    Cod Wall
84 fsw
48:00
32%

20.    Scuba Zoo
54 fsw
66:00
32%

21.    Geronimo
49 fsw
49:00
32%

22.    Wheeler Reef, GBR   
56 fsw
66:00
32%


 

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